You know you aren’t in China anymore when you see all the bicyclists stop at a red light at a virtually empty intersection, patiently waiting for the light to change to green before they head on. You know it when at breakfast you see German men sipping from huge glasses of weissbier as they eat their bratwurst. You know it when you enter a relatively upscale restaurant and see unleashed dogs lying on the floor by their owners’ feet. It was refreshing; I was glad to be back in Munich, where I spent my junior year of college studying classical music and German. This attitude was soon tempered, however, as my weekend progressed.
I arrived in Germany on Saturday afternoon around 5 p.m. and was surprised to see just about every business shut down for the day. I had forgotten to bring the recharging cable for my iPod and was certain I could easily find one in downtown Munich and set out for a little walk to do so. My hotel is by Gaertner Platz, right off of Schwannthaler Strasse, a street lined with one electronics shop after another. Whatever kind of electronics item you can think of – mobile phones, computers, disc drives, digital cameras – there’s a store that sells them on Schwannthalerstr.
The only problem was, every single one of them was closed.
In vain I walked from shop to shop. Each had the little sign on its door saying they close at 4 p.m. on Saturday and are closed all day Sunday. Okay. I used to live in Germany, and I had forgotten how seriously they take their weekends. And that’s not a bad thing. But then, when I was back in my hotel lobby, I heard the concierge telling a guest that Monday was a national holiday and that the entire city would be for all intents and purposes shut down. I was not going to get my cable.
I didn’t give up hope, and this morning (Monday) I resumed my quest despite the sudden drop in temperature and an icy rainfall. This time I walked much farther, crossing into Marienplatz (the Munich version of Wangfujing, except it’s incredibly beautiful and bursting with centuries-old culture) and scouring its outer limits. Nothing. Today, not even the restaurants and Internet cafes were open. I had to walk nearly half an hour to find a place where I could get a cup on coffee, and the Internet cafe I’m using now took me even longer to find.
Think about it: For two and a half days, a customer with needs, ready and willing to spend money, cannot find an open shop. I compared this with Hong Kong and with China, where the entrepreneurial spirit, annoying as it can be at times, is always on fire. With six years in Asia, I had never seen anything like this even once. The one exception is perhaps Chinese New Year’s day, when things in Greater China do shut down, but only for a day – and still you can find places that are open. Same in America, where on Christmas and Thanksgiving day most businesses shut down, but again only for a single day.
So basically, the thousands of tourists here and people here on business like me are shit out of luck. Two and a half days – that is a long time to lock down an entire country and bring all commerce to a grinding halt. (The Internet cafe in which I am working now is packed, by the way, because its owner apparently bucked the system and opened its doors. There is so much money to be made for those who really want to compete.)
I like the idea of lots of holidays and a relaxed work week. I think the average American workers gets a wretched deal with their measly 10 vacation days and precious few paid holidays.
However, what I have seen in Germany over the past three days drove home to me the point made in a book I am now reading about China, namely that the old European welfare state, with its promise of a 35-hour work week and lots of state-provided benefits simply cannot survive in today’s globalized world. Not when China is heading straight at them, shaking the foundations of their existence and driving them increasingly into irrelevance.
I love Germany and lived here for more than a year. I speak German (though on this trip the German kept coming out with lots of Chinese) and relate to this country on a deeply personal level. And maybe it was just bad luck that I landed in Munich on the eve of a two-day holiday. But that book I am reading (I’ll write it up over the next few days, and don’t want to give away the title yet) kept comparing Germany and China, and I couldn’t help doing so myself. It talked of the 25-hour workweek for teachers, and the attitude (since disproven at a painful cost) that Germany’s artisans were untouchable and invulnerable to global competition. It talked of a socialized medical system that was literally breaking the back of a nation weighted down already with an unemployment rate above 12 percent.
And yes, I’m conflicted as I write this. I believe in universal healthcare and unions and workers’ rights. But I also believe in competitiveness and pragmatism. As I walked the streets of Munich for two and a half days unable to buy a pen or a simple computer cable, I kept thinking, China is going to crush this country, which is too in love with its own comforts, too unwilling to face the realities of today’s globalized business world.
I know, it’s not that simple. Competition from China is unique in that it is not fair (more about that when I review the book I’m reading), and there is little that countries like Germany can do to defend themselves. Even if they added hours to their workweek and trimmed social spending, China would continue to undercut them and force their great companies to outsource all manufacturing, leaving countless workers in dire straits. But I saw my search for an open shop as a metaphor for what’s wrong with “Old Europe,” stuck in the past and believing it can weather the storm while keeping its ineffective and outdated welfare system intact. China is hungry. Its competitors had better be hungry, too.
I am sure many here see the long holiday and the relaxed working hours as great things, as signs of Germany’s strength, as proof of the efficacy of Germany’s liberal policies. But this comfort and complacency seems to me a trap, especially at a time when Germany’s population is aging, with nowhere near the number of young people to keep financing the strained welfare system.
And meanwhile, China is shaking the world, and places like Germany had better recognize the challenge. Even on CNY day in Beijing, I would have found a place to buy a pen and a cable. Someone’s always out there hustling to close the sale. Those who don’t play with equal determination and agility will be crushed under the behemoth that is Chinese competition.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.